When we first meet Randy Lewis, the weary and bearded Alamance County dairy farmer at the center of The Last Barn Dance, he looks like he'll never smile again, let alone dance.
Through the speakerphone of an iPhone, incongruously sleek in his work-ravaged hand, he explains to the buyer at a nearby grocery store expecting a large order of cold milk that there won't be one today. Despite years of consideration and months of construction, his plans to bypass wholesale distributors and bottle and sell his own milk have encountered a possibly insurmountable obstacle: His new pasteurization machine may be broken. Staring wall-eyed and exhausted into the distance, he can only mutter, "Oh, lord."
The 30-minute documentary traces the anatomy of that anxious moment and its connection to barn dancing, a cathartic musical tradition that, like dairy farming itself, has dwindled in Alamance County. The character of both enterprises depends on their tactility and interpersonal proximity, phantom qualities in an increasingly online or otherwise mass-manufactured era.
But The Last Barn Dance isn't a polemic about the dairy industry, a lament for the failure of the American Dream or some paean for the vanishing hardworking American man. It's an exploration of existence—the woes that we battle, the joys that we indulge.
"It's not a political thing," explains Jason Arthurs, one of the film's directors. "It's just about people."
His co-director, Ted Richardson, crossed paths with Lewis more than a decade ago. As a photographer for the Winston-Salem Journal, Richardson covered a string band's performance in remote Eli Whitney, a tiny crossroads community on a stretch of highway between Pittsboro and Burlington. Richardson was more intrigued by the Doc Branch Band, led by brothers descended from a distinguished musical lineage, than the setting, an old country barn.
Still, the dairy farmer hosting the event, Lewis, was impossible to miss or forget.
"You don't go out there and not meet him," says Richardson.
Lewis inherited the tradition of hosting barn dances along with the family farm his grandmother bequeathed to him. Held in spring and fall, they were informally announced but fully expected events that provided a hardworking community with twice-yearly celebrations featuring barbecue, dancing and fellowship.
Richardson kept coming back to the dances, and his friendship with Lewis deepened. Lewis worried that no photos or videos of the dances existed and thought such an antiquated institution deserved more documentation. Richardson, who had joined Arthurs at the News & Observer, recruited friends to help, and what began as a low-key effort to help steadily grew into the sophisticated The Last Barn Dance.
"The equipment got better, and my friends were getting really good at video. We approached it a little more deliberately," he says. "Then we picked up on the storyline behind the dance."
That storyline of independent economic struggle enriches the film immeasurably, turning it into more than a document of a rural custom. Had the filmmakers possessed a clear idea of why they were taping at all, however, they might not have found it.
"We were making this film, but we didn't have a moment where you really felt Randy struggle," Arthurs remembers. "We weren't on the edge of something disappearing, and then that happened during the milk bottling. We wanted to capture that struggle."
Arthurs describes the process as a long slog, but the filmmakers' willingness to wait and watch makes ordinary occurrences extraordinary and poignant. There's an exquisite moment in which a cock's crow sounds, for instance, amid dawn's faint murmurs. Stirring sleepily, Lewis proclaims it to be the best time of the day. The cameras captured it because Arthurs and a few others pitched a tent that night and took turns resting and filming, patient and with no particular place to go.
"I like the cultural-anthropological approach. Just hang out," says Richardson. "The themes will come. People's value systems will express themselves visually."
In another scene, when Lewis travels to an upscale neighborhood with one of his cows so a Hindu couple can bless their house in the traditional manner, he reacts with amiable curiosity. While the sequence has all the earmarks of a Meaningful Documentary Moment, the directors resist the temptation to make the pieces fit together too neatly. As they see it, the approach consciously opposes the current documentary aesthetic of quick conclusions and didactic directives.
"You've got a group of people who are trying to salvage their traditions and keep them alive in this world, and you've got Randy trying to do the same thing. They're crossing at this one point," says Richardson. "For a moment, I was listening for the film to go that way, but that didn't happen. We didn't force it."
Working with editor Jon Kasbe, they introduced more questions than answers into the finished product.
"It's not an informational film at all. It's an experiential film," Richardson explains. "You get into these spaces, these moments when you feel what it's like to live on that farm and the issues that are facing Randy. And just as you get claustrophobically close to the situation, you get to feel the joy that's part of this place."
For Lewis, the joy is the music. The scenes of partner dancing that bookend the film are exhilarating. Just after the weight of circumstances have made his shoulders sag, he shifts on screen, breaking into effortless, loose-hipped movement. It feels like seeing someone sprout wings and fly.
But capturing the music of a live string band amid a sea of yelling and clapping presented a challenge, so The Last Barn Dance used that sound as an inspiration, not an end. Arthurs and Richardson shared a few examples of tent music they liked with Ari Picker, the former leader of Lost in the Trees and a classically trained composer. They let him run with the motif. The result is a score uncannily attuned to the film's elegiac, wistful and triumphant moods.
The dances at Lewis' farm are among the few left in North Carolina, and they are fragile things, held together by nails, wood and no small measure of luck. Though that sounds like a metaphor, Lewis actually has to shore up the old, movement-prone floor of his barn by hammering extra lumber into place to support the weight of dancers. So far, it's held.
When the documentary makes its North Carolina premiere this weekend, Lewis will be there. The Doc Branch Band will be on hand, too, as well as farming advocacy groups such as the Rural Advancement Foundation International, which helped Lewis obtain a grant for the refrigeration unit that was vital to his eventual journey to entrepreneurship.
Aside from the screening, though, the event is shaping up to resemble one of Lewis' barn dances—only on a grander scale, with a rented popcorn machine, a stronger floor and a momentary break from the worries of the farm.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Too close to call."